Timeless tragedy in black and white
There’s only one trouble with Romeo and Juliet – everyone knows it in one guise or another.
The iconic familiarity of the tale is both a blessing and a curse, admit members of Earl Marriott Secondary’s theatre company.
While they work hard to bring Shakespeare’s original to the stage of the Wheelhouse Theatre (March 9-12, 7:30 performances), an animated take-off, Gnomeo and Juliet, is playing less than a mile down the road at the local fourplex.
It underlines the fact that Romeo and Juliet has been adapted, reworked, lampooned and bowdlerized over more than four centuries, resurfacing in everything from Warner Brothers’ cartoon parodies to Broadway’s West Side Story. But while revisiting the play is inevitably a challenge, it’s well worth the struggle, said student lead Erik Kavanaugh – if only to remind audiences the Bard established our own template for dramas about star-crossed love,
“Just about any love story, any film these days is based on something from Romeo and Juliet,” added the young actor, who plays Romeo to fellow Grade 12 Marika Stanger’s Juliet in drama teacher and director Candace Radcliffe’s re-imagined, black-and-white themed version of the play.
As varied as contemporary versions may be, the basic plot is easy to summarize.
“The boy and girl want to be together, but they can’t be – their parents don’t want them to be together,” Kavanaugh said. “People need to know where this originally came from and that Shakespeare created stories that live on – even in a high school in White Rock.”
The lesson of two feuding families of Verona whose treasured offspring are caught up in – and eventually destroyed by – their spiraling conflict remains valid, Stanger said.
“I always get upset with people who do remakes of Romeo and Juliet in which the characters live,” Stanger said.
“They have to die because it’s such a perfect tragedy. If they didn’t die their families wouldn’t have learned how pointless and harmful their feud is.”
The players – last seen on stage at Marriott in last year’s celebrated school production of Beauty and the Beast (Kavanaugh as the clock, Cogsworth, and Stanger as the feather duster, Babette) – say they’re enjoying this foray into more serious territory.
The actors are in the age range of the characters they play – Kavanaugh, at 17, is exactly the same age as Romeo, while Stanger, also 17, is only a few years older than the 13 or 14 of Shakespeare’s Juliet. But they admit that one of the hardest things for them to play is the headlong, all-consuming passion – romantic and idealized as it is – that drives the characters.
“The idea that just knowing as soon as you see this person that he’s the one – I don’t think that actually happens,” Stanger said.
“I don’t think either of us have experienced anything close to this,” said Kavanaugh.
Both agree the key to playing the roles has been to forget the luggage of expectations and concentrate on making their Romeo and Juliet believable in the moment.
“You have to stop watching all the movies and think about it in a different light – focus on what the person is thinking and make it real,” Stanger said.
Another challenge, they say, is conveying the meaning underlying Shakespeare’s poetic Elizabethan language, rather than simply offering a recitation. Radcliffe gave them a good exercise to work on this aspect, Kavanaugh said – writing paraphrases of all their lines in contemporary English.
“If you can do it, you know what you’re playing – and if you can’t, it means you still don’t understand it all,” he said.
Helping underline the timelessness of the tragedy, in the current production, is an original electronic music score by composer/lighting and sound wizard Sebastian Galina, currently a student at SFU but returning to his former high school to supervise the technical aspects of the show.
A blending of classical style melodies and techno beats, Galina’s score dovetails with the movement created by choregrapher Carol Seitz for the fight and masked ball sequences, while the black-and-white theme gives a distinctive look to a costume plot of largely 20th century-style garb.
“I thought, since we are using black and white photography and black and white film in the show, that black and white would give it a classic, timeless feel,” said Radcliffe.
“We don’t get to see Shakespeare very often and it’s so important to make it accessible to the audience. I wanted to make it look both old and new at the same time.”
Radcliffe said viewers are also being encouraged to dress in black and white – part of a blurring of lines between actors and audience that includes staging some of the action of the play in the auditorium.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have been in Italy and there’s a sense there, in the small towns and the cities, of all roads leading to a central plaza. When characters are coming down the aisles of the theatre it reflects these roads and also the story with all its interconnected paths.”
Tickets are $15, seniors $12 and students $10. For reservations, call 604-542-2181 (the box office is open Mon. to Fri. from 11:20 to 11:55 a.m. and 2:40 to 3:30 p.m.)